New York Times opens door to coverage of what ISIS is saying about Islamic faith

Before I get to a New York Times piece on efforts to counter Islamic State recruiting programs, let me respond to the many people who have sent me emails asking for my reaction to the massive piece in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood entitled "What ISIS Really Wants."

Well that piece is very long and very serious and, to be honest, I have not read all of it yet. I have been in a series of long meetings in New York City -- linked to my future work at The King's College as Senior Fellow for Media and Religion -- and I have not been able to give Wood's piece the attention that it deserves. I plan to buy a copy today and read in on the train back to Baltimore.

However, the thesis of the piece is clear in the online discussions that have surrounded it: Whatever the Islamic State is, it is a movement that is rooted in its own understanding of Islamic faith, practice and tradition. Thus, it is engaged in a bloody critique of other forms of Islam, as well as the modern and postmodern West. (Click here for a massive Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher post on Wood's piece, and others linked to it.)

Meanwhile, this same subject -- the debate INSIDE Islam about ISIS and its approach to the faith -- shows up in the very interesting A1 piece in the Times that ran under the headline "U.S. Muslims Take On ISIS’ Recruiting Machine."

This piece operates on two levels, with most of the content focusing on the ISIS process of "grooming" potential recruits online with attention and, later, even gifts. In this context "grooming," the story notes, is a term "more often used in relation to sexual predators."

But what is the religious content of this strange blend of hyper-violent imagery and Islamist evangelism? This is the second layer of the Times report, one that -- GetReligion readers will not be surprised at this -- I wish had been given more attention.

Here is one crucial passage about the recruiting process:

In practice, it often means one-on-one conversations with Muslims like Amir, a 22-year-old computer programmer in Virginia who said he was drawn to extremist videos from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, because he was a new convert struggling with how to live out his faith in the United States. He said he chafed at having to work in an office with Muslim women who covered their heads but wore clothing he considered too tight. He also did not like seeing photographs of people on the walls, or advertisements for credit cards, which he said Islam strictly forbids. “Every time I mentioned it, no one heard me out,” he said. “I definitely felt like a stranger.”
He said his disenchantment with the Islamic State began when the group beheaded Peter Kassig, who reports said was a Muslim convert, and later executed a Jordanian pilot. Amir then had some long talks with Imam Magid, who pointed him to passages in the Quran that forbid killing other Muslims, innocent women and children. Amir concluded that the Islamic State was only sowing chaos and hatred, which the Prophet Muhammad abhorred.

There are several issues of Islamic faith and practice raised in that passage. You can see some of the parameters of the debates that, behind the scenes, are taking place online and behind the scenes in mosques. Think of this as a very high-stakes variation on debates among faithful Jews about how to live kosher lives in modern American cities, or among homeschooling Christian families about how to use computers in the education of their children -- without losing control of that technology.

This is real. These debates inside Islam matter, because they matter to Muslims living in our culture and in other modern cities and lands around the world. Muslims are not alone in facing these issues, but in a world where ISIS is a real and growing presence the stakes could not be higher for these families, these congregations and the world as a whole.

Obviously, these debates center on issues of Islamic doctrine and practice. There is no way to avoid that reality. But are they MERELY doctrinal? Of course not. Some macho guys may also want to fight -- period. This passage stood out for me:

“ISIS says: ‘Come here. We’ve got ripped warriors,’ ” said Imam Suhaib Webb, a popular Muslim leader who moved from Boston to the Washington area last month. “It’s a very simplistic response, but it’s somewhat effective.”
He said that in more than 15 years as an imam, he had encountered only five Muslims considering whether they should join violent militant groups, and that none of them had actually left the United States to fight. “They were all males,” said Imam Webb, and “they all had daddy issues.” He added, “They were not really drawn to this on theological grounds.”

That's one voice and, frankly, a point of view that contrasts with some of the other material in this report. That's OK, because this is a complex subject. That's journalism.

But why so little attention to the actual content of these debates? Let's hope that this Times report (like the now viral Atlantic cover story) gets some editors and reporters thinking. This is, I think, the biggest religion story in the world, right now. Anyone want to argue with that?

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